Matt Gutman, NO TIME TO PANIC: How I Curbed My Anxiety and Conquered a Lifetime of Panic Attacks

Matt Gutman, NO TIME TO PANIC: How I Curbed My Anxiety and Conquered a Lifetime of Panic Attacks

Zibby hosts Matt Gutman to discuss his book, NO TIME TO PANIC. Matt shares his 25-year journey with panic attacks and the quest for relief, delving into various treatments, including pharmaceuticals and psychedelics like ketamine. The discussion extends to how anxiety is embedded in human evolution, making it a normal part of the human experience. Matt reflects on the societal lack of understanding and self-diagnos


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Matt. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss No Time to Panic: How I Conquered a Lifetime of Panic Attacks by Crying with Strangers, Bearhugging My Fears, and Dialing Down My Anxiety. Congratulations.

Matt Gutman: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s good to be with you.

Zibby: You too. You spill your whole heart and experience on the page in this book, all the things that you hid for so long with your anxiety and the attacks that some people said they can’t even tell when they happen to you, but you feel them so much. You describe in huge detail what the panic attacks feel like. You say in the book, “Secrets make loners.” Here you are getting rid of all the secrets. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to write the book, when you decided to write the book, and how it’s been getting it all out there.

Matt: I’ve had panic attacks for twenty-five years. The first one happened in college. I was defending my college thesis. I knew it cold. I got up to speak, and the floor fell out. I felt like I was molting into a werewolf. I was like, my skin is coming off. My heart is smashing against my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t remember anything that I was supposed to say. I didn’t even know what it was for so many years. It took me fifteen years after that to figure out that this was a panic attack. Then in January 26, 2020, I had a reckoning. I was reporting on the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash. I had a panic attack during our on-air special event. I couldn’t separate the two things that I was supposed to say. It was just happening. I made a catastrophic mistake. When you’re having a panic attack, your brain is really good at figuring out where you are, where you need to go, spatial awareness. One of the things it can’t do is process long-term memory. Anything longer than thirty seconds, you’re toast. I made a terrible mistake. Then at that point, I realized I either have to quit TV or figure this panic thing out. I’d been talking about it for years with my wife. I’m unhappy doing television news. I love my job, but going live sometimes just is so painful because of the panic attacks. She was incredibly supportive about it.

I started on this road. I started trying every pharmaceutical. Then I tried altered states. About a year into it, I did something that I’d never done. I had had another panic attack on air. I was sitting on — I remember distinctly — 13C on a Southwest plane. I started to talk to the lady next to me. Her name is Kat . If you’re listening Kat, hi. She and I are still close friends. I basically just spilled the beans. I’d never told anybody about panic. Suddenly, I was telling this complete stranger. I felt this overwhelming relief. I’m like, ah, the sharing thing, this is good medicine. Then I started looking for panic attack support groups. I couldn’t find virtually any in the whole country. You can find some online, but they’re only for people to vent or to post their latest crisis. There’s no sharing. There’s no community. I now realized at that point that I had a constituency of more than one. That’s when I decided to write the book. Then I started really going down the road of altered states because the pharmacology wasn’t working, the SSRIs, the benzos, the GABAs, the Strattera, the stimulants. I tried everything. It wasn’t working. The altered states really did help. That’s a long way of saying how I started to think about this as a book and as something that was larger than my own little journey out of panic.

Zibby: Do you feel that now you are much better off having shared? Does it help on a deep level?

Matt: It definitely helps, but can I say that I’m not going to have a panic attack? No. To be frank to all the moms out there, and the dads, who might be listening, the preparation and publicity ahead of this book has been massively anxiety building. I’m not immune to anxiety. I am not over anxiety in any way. I am totally wired for this. I’m going to wager to say it makes me a very good journalist because I am highly attuned to the facial expressions, to be sensitive to other people, to try to intuit what they’re thinking, which I think is also your secret sauce, which is why you can extract things from people that they might not tell other people. This sensitivity has a flip side sometimes, and that’s anxiety because we are so attuned, so aware that sometimes it overwhelms our senses.

Zibby: I actually didn’t even know that everyone didn’t have anxiety for a long time. I was like, what do you mean this is a thing? My grandmother calls it the worry gene. I’m like, wait, you don’t spin around in your head all the time? What do you mean? What is that like?

Matt: I’m going to not get too soapbox-y, but I think that there is a fallacy that is the wellness world, that our natural disposition is to be zen and to be calm. It’s not. Humans are not engineered to be content or happy. We are engineered to survive and to procreate. This is one of the other little rabbit holes that I went to in the book, which is about evolutionary science. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me, I’m like, if this thing causes me so much suffering, if anxiety is so bad for us — it causes heart disease, gut problems, everything, high blood pressure. It’s so unhealthy. Why do so many people have it? Why is it so deeply embedded in the human gene? Why haven’t we selected out of it? I started asking evolutionary biologists and psychologists. They’re like, oh, no, this is meant to be there. Anxiety was the secret sauce that made humans so very successful. It’s the reason we were able to get bigger brains and smaller bodies, less muscle, less speed. Because we cooperated so intensely, we needed those big brains. Being able to be scared sooner was a huge evolutionary advantage. It reframed the way I thought about anxiety and panic.

In terms of panic, Randy Nesse, who is one of the founding fathers of evolutionary psychiatry, was telling me, he’s like, “The panic is like a smoke alarm. Your brain would prefer pulling that smoke alarm in error a thousand times in favor of missing a real alarm.” If you pull it and you burn a hundred calories freaking out and being whatever, it’s okay. You burnt a hundred calories. Much better than being dead. Your body is naturally geared to err on the side of panic or anxiety rather than missing one of those ques or alarms. He told me panic is perfectly normal. It’s so simple. It also just changed my complete framework of how I thought about it. I’m like, oh, I am not some miserable, stinky kink in the human genome. I am not a mutant. This is normal. I’m a successful member of this human genome. I’m just doing what the brain is supposed to do. It gave me such relief as well. Anybody out there, whoever experiences panic, it’s normal. It’s fleeting. You’re going to get over it. You’re actually, in many ways, wired for it. Remember that.

Zibby: Big relief. That’s lovely. You wrote a lot about the different things you tried. I was circling as you mentioned. I’m like, okay, he tried this drug. He tried that drug. He tried this drug. Which one’s going to work? Then you go into detail about the psychedelics and all of those that you went through at the end. The one — I think this was ketamine. Which one was this? Was it ketamine at the end where you ceased to exist?

Matt: Yeah.

Zibby: Let me just read this paragraph. “Then all the colors fused into black. Then there was nothing. Not even me. Matt Gutman had ceased to exist. The person who was me had disappeared. So had the pillows, the bed, the room, the state of California, the Earth, the known and unknown universe. There was no time, no space, no history, no self. I retained just enough baseline consciousness to know that I was a speck in a limitless void but not enough to know who I was or to recall any prior existence.” Whoa. How do you come back from that? That’s what I hear, death or the afterlife — I’ve read descriptions similar to that for people who have died and come back to life or whatever.

Matt: It’s exhilarating. First of all, coming back is great. You’re like, this is fantastic. It just makes you so grateful for having any baseline consciousness. For me, it was definitely top several profound experiences of my life. I recorded the ketamine sessions. In them, I’m mumbling semi-incoherently like some maniac. I’m like, oh, that’s amazing. That’s the most profound thing to ever happen. There was another thing that actually really grounded me and connected me to something I hadn’t expected, although kind of had in my subconscious, which was, my wife had a terrible experience during her C-section with our now fifteen-year-old daughter. I was working in Jerusalem at the time. We were both living there, obviously. She tried for fifty-five hours to give birth naturally. We were really into it. At the end, the doctor’s like, “We got to rush you into surgery.” We were like, “Okay. We got to get this baby out healthy.” At the very end of the surgery, she sort of came to, and they gave her ketamine just to put her down for another fifteen, twenty minutes while they finished stitching her up. She went into the K-hole, but she didn’t have — I had a psychiatrist and a psychologist by my side literally holding my hand through my experience. She didn’t have that.

So many women are in the same position. The negative experience she had with the K-hole and ketamine propelled her into a pretty severe postpartum depression, which changed part of the trajectory of my daughter’s early childhood. It was really difficult. My ketamine experience enabled me to sympathize and be with my wife and essentially commune with her on a different plane — that sounds very woo-woo, but it did — connect with her in a way that I never really had, and that pain that she’d been through, and all these other women who have to go through this stuff. Nobody’s telling them that they’re being given ketamine and they might have a pretty significant psychedelic experience, so look out. That was an ancillary thing that happened to me during this experience that made it even more powerful personally. For me, ketamine was just fantastic. It’s legal. It’s easily administered. It’s highly accessible. It’s fast acting. It goes away quickly. It gets you to the ego death, which so many people want to achieve. It was a very profound experience.

Zibby: Wow.

Matt: Have you ever tried it?

Zibby: No. I don’t like being out of control. I understand. I’m just not up for it.

Matt: The only way that I could really go on this journey — it’s so hackneyed to say journey, but it is fitting in this case — was to do it in the only way and a mode that I knew, which is reporting. My style of reporting is to go all out. I’ve covered dozens of wars. My style is to just throw myself into the deep end and see what happens. That was my reporting style for this book. I’m going to figure this out. I’m going to make it as painful as possible. I’m going to get into the gizzards of all these things that I’m trying to study and learn. That’s the way I’m going to come out of this because that’s how I know how to do things. That might not work for everyone. It probably won’t. I say it in the introduction. This is not advisable, necessarily. This is a, perhaps, circuitous route. The roadmap is not direct. I recommend people using the GPS or iMaps or Google Maps, is a better roadmap than what I did. It was the way that I could do it. It serves well for telling a story, but I need to do it in the mode that I felt comfortable with. That was the way I went about doing it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Speaking of your reporting, I was literally reading the book, and then there you were on the TV reporting on Burning Man and the deluge and everything. I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s my book. So funny.

Matt: That was quite a scene.

Zibby: It sounded just insane.

Matt: I just got back last night. There’s mud all over the place, the boots. Talk about a lot of psychedelics. By the way, I think that that’s great. People who go to Burning Man and experience that, I think it’s wonderful. There is a wonderful sense of community. For people who think that my experimentation with multiple psychedelics was Hunter S. Thompson slaloming around Vegas in a Chevy Caprice, it’s not. I was on a couch. I was with the psychedelic coach or a guide or a shaman or actual psychologists or psychiatrists the whole time. It was very thought out in that sense. I wasn’t trying to mess around or have fun. This was extremely dedicated to figuring out and getting to this well of grief that I describe myself as having inside, this pit of sadness and grief that was so deep that I couldn’t access it in my regular brain. I had to go into an alternated state because I too, like you, like control. I needed to give that up. I needed to give up that control in order to heal. The healing helped with the panic because it’s all tied together.

Zibby: You mention some of your family history of tragedy. You had the loss of your father at a young age — I’m so sorry about that — and the litany of other things facing your family. How do you even cope with something like that? How do you move on at age — you were nine, right? Nine?

Matt: I was twelve when my dad .

Zibby: Twelve. I’m so sorry.

Matt: No, that’s okay. It’s pretty good that you remembered anyway. Humans are incredible. We’re remarkably resilient. We get through so much, but it’s not always the happiest getting through. It’s sometimes difficult. We carry these scars throughout our whole lives. Sometimes they have these knock-on effects that we might not foresee. For me, not having really dealt with — it is a pretty significant trauma at the age of twelve, waking up one morning, saying goodbye to your dad, and then he’s dead in a plane crash that afternoon. It’s tough. I was really good at putting one foot in front of the other. It’s my claim to fame. I can always do that, which is why I’m a good journalist, but that’s not necessarily the best thing for your soul. It’s good for journalism. It’s good for moving on, for career. Your heart and your soul sometimes demand something else. It was time that I went back inside and spoke to the heart and the soul and addressed them and gave them their due because it was time.

Zibby: Don’t you think this whole experience and in-depth analysis of yourself is just going to make you a better journalist?

Matt: I love that you say that. Yeah, I guess so. I hadn’t really thought of it way. I was actually putting my journalism hat aside for a while to focus on me, but I think you’re right. One of the things that it did give me is so much more compassion. I have a lot of compassion because I can speak to people who’ve suffered in our common language of grief, but it made me even more compassionate in many ways. One of the things that I couldn’t understand is — I’m very gregarious. The other asset that I have as a journalist is I will literally talk to anybody, anytime, anyplace, which is really annoying to my producers. They’re like, oh, my god, Gutman’s talking to someone else. We got to get out of here, Matt. Come on. There’s this whole world of people who panic. Some of the people have become hopelessly agoraphobic. Some of them have struggles just talking to people in a supermarket. That was the one thing I couldn’t understand. I was like, just talking to regular people, you can’t do that?

When I actually had — long story. You’ll have to read the book, folks. I actually had a panic attack in a novel way that I never had had before towards the end of the book just talking to someone because it had been so much in my head. I’d never experienced that in my forty-five years of existence. I’m like, what is this? Is my superpower gone? My superpower being to talk to anybody. Has that evaporated? It hadn’t. I did have this panic attack. I was able to store it in a place of understanding because I’d just undergone this other treatment called carbon dioxide, CO2 challenges, hours before. I got it. It gave me compassion for a different classification of panic attacks and a sense of compassion for people experiencing something that I never thought that I’d be able to feel. That was really profound for me as well. All of it is just about embracing life and different experiences. Yes, thank you Zibby, it did give me more compassion and perhaps made me better as a journalist.

Zibby: See, there you go. You’ll just have to pay attention. You’ll be like, see, she was right. There you go.

Matt: I have you as a coach.

Zibby: Funny. How are you going to get through doing all the publicity for the book? What’s the plan? What’s your strategy? How do you go through things you know are going to be challenging?

Matt: It’s a really good question. I had a tough couple of weeks, especially on vacation, this summer. I’m now just in, get it done. I’m actually so much better. I don’t know. I just feel like I’m in a better place. I’m right at the finish line too. I had the period of peak anxiety. I crested that. I’m over the hill. Now I’m like, okay, I got this. This is what I do. I love talking to people. This is going to be fun. I started to embrace it. Now I’m kind of jazzed by it. I had the reframe. I allowed the anxiety to come in. I allowed it to reside in me for longer than I had anticipated it would. Then as it started to ebb, I bid it farewell. I said, thank you for coming. I acknowledged it. I’m moving on. Now I’m trying to embrace the experience and enjoy it.

Zibby: I like that.

Matt: Seriously, how bad can it be when I get to talk to people like you? That’s not to butter you up. It’s a compliment. It’s a nice experience to be able to talk to a fellow intelligent, bright human who is interested in books.

Zibby: Thank you. I think parts of book publicity can be really interesting. You meet lots of bookish people. I have found, to be honest, after interviewing a lot of people, so many authors have anxiety and anxiety disorders. I should go back through the interviews. It must be seventy percent of authors. There’s something about the writing and the observing and all of it. I’m sure you found a lot of your people.

Matt: It’s part of the human experience. People who write books typically are more sensitive, but humans are sensitive. I think that there is a catastrophic lack of understanding about what panic is and how pervasive it is in society. We know, of people who answer the surveys, that twenty-eight percent of Americans will suffer a panic attack in their lifetime. That’s a lot. Psychologists with whom I worked on this book believe the number is much closer to fifty percent because think about how many people there are like me, people who had done therapy for twenty years before they realized, oh, the nerves that I feel every time I go on air, that’s panic. If I didn’t know that, someone who literally thought about this for years, how are other people going to be able to figure that out? Lots of people don’t know what panic looks like when it actually hits them. Another crazy factoid, talking about the effect on society, forty percent of all patients who turn up at our nation’s ERs complaining of heart trouble thinking that they’re dying of a heart attack are actually having a panic attack. Forty percent. Only one to two percent of those people are actually treated for panic on the scene, given whatever, and released. The rest are told, you’re not having a heart attack. We’re not quite sure exactly what it is. Forty percent, that’s three million Americans every year presenting at ERs thinking they’re having a heart attack when it’s a panic attack. It is so pervasive. People still aren’t able to diagnose it themselves because we don’t have much intervention. People aren’t told what a panic attack looks like, how pervasive it is, what it feels like, so they can’t self-diagnose. It’s so sad to me.

Zibby: It’s like that scene with Jack Nicholson. Do you remember the movie where he —

Matt: — As Good as It Gets?

Zibby: As Good as It Gets, is that what it was? Or Something’s Gotta Give. I don’t know. One of those. He thinks he’s having a panic attack. He goes to the ER. I’ll have to look it up and send it to you. Anyway, he goes. He’s like, what do you mean I’m having a panic attack?

Matt: It is this part of TV and movie lore, and then we still don’t get it. Even I don’t get it. One of the crazy things about panic is that it’s as individual as a fingerprint. It varies for so many people. I’ve never had derealization where you don’t really know where you are. You lose self-awareness. I have rapid heartrate, rapid breathing, tunnel vision, sweating, trembling. I fear a loss of control. I feel like I’m just going to lose it. I’m going to blurt something out. That’s my fear. Other people feel like they’re going to die. They actually think that they are dying, which is why so many people present at the nation’s ERs. They are so different and so individualistic.

Zibby: One last thing I wanted to mention, you said people ask you a lot, with anxiety, why did you pick this profession? You could do a lot of other things. Aren’t you nervous going live all the time? You said you don’t think about all the people. You’re actually just mostly focused on the people in the control room, who you’re working for, those people, and the public at large. Tell me about that. Has that shifted?

Matt: This goes back to — everybody at home, if you’re hearing — I’m sitting in my wife’s office today. I never realized how squeaky her desk chair is, so I apologize if you hear constant squeaking behind me. I’m a fidgeter. This is part of the evolutionary psychology thing. There are basically two major buckets of human fear. Mothers will know this well. The first is the fear of us essentially — think about a cave person living thirty thousand years ago. You had these two major fears. One is being out on the savannah and being eaten by a lion or clawed by a bear, hit by lightning, having your offspring die in a rock fall, being slaughtered by the bozos in the cave next valley over who are murderous, whatever, some sort of physical fear that you are going to die. The other is a social fear. We feared losing our group. We feared being kicked out of our group, which is why we became so exquisitely attuned to the facial expressions of others, to social signals. If you missed a social signal and you were accused of either being lazy and shirking your duties and weakening the group’s strength, then you would get kicked out of the group. Excommunication meant death, which is why our social fears manifest so strongly and make us actually fear that we’re going to die. It’s the brain sending a signal to the body. You’ve got to deal with this. You’ve got to deal with it now. If you don’t deal with it, you’re going to die.

That’s why a panic attack is such a powerful, overwhelmingly consuming experience. I don’t worry about when I go on air. I am concerned about making my little cave group better. My cave group consists of the people sitting in the dimly, thinly lit control room at 47 West 66th in New York, executive producers, the David Muirs, the Robin Roberts, the George Stephanopouloses, people I deeply respect. I want to make our group better. My fear of weakening it by losing control and messing something up is overwhelming sometimes. That’s why I have the panic attack. I don’t worry about the ten million people watching. I love them. I really do. I’m not worried about them because they don’t judge me personally. If I mess up, they have no power to change the course of my life or my career. The executive producers and the anchors do or might, but they don’t, obviously. That’s in my head. That’s the story I told myself.

Zibby: Amazing. Matt, thank you so much for coming on. I hope to meet you. I hope to see you in my store. Good luck with the rest of all the publicity. Congratulations.

Matt: Thank you so much, Zibby. It was such a pleasure.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Matt: Thank you. I really appreciate that.

NO TIME TO PANIC: How I Curbed My Anxiety and Conquered a Lifetime of Panic Attacks by Matt Gutman

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